Transportation agencies may merge, allowing vote on toll roads

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Voters may get say on toll roads
By Pat Driscoll
December 20, 2008

Talks are gaining steam to abolish San Antonio’s fledging toll-road agency and give voters a long-demanded say-so on toll roads.Shuttering the five-year-old Alamo Regional Mobility Authority, which still is several years away from opening a toll road, would be a byproduct of a still-sketchy idea to merge the agency and VIA Metropolitan Transit into the existing Advanced Transportation District.

Voters approved the ATD and its quarter-cent sales tax in 2004 to expand bus service, upgrade city streets and build highway lanes. The district, which follows the city’s boundary, also can construct and operate toll roads and light rail.

Amid the bureaucratic wrangling lies a catch. Promises made during the ATD referendum forbid spending on tolls or rail without additional public votes.

“That was a valid pledge,” insists attorney Tim Tuggey, a former VIA and ATD chairman now advising the toll agency.

Giving the public a vote on toll roads is the right thing to do anyway, say a bevy of toll supporters now advocating the consolidation of the agencies.

“After all these years, I’ve just come to the point, if they want it, fine, if they don’t, fine,” County Judge Nelson Wolff said. “I believe people ought to get what they ask for.”

Toll critics aren’t sure whether to smile or frown.

The result could be ugly if funding isn’t tied to specific projects and limited to a time frame, said Terri Hall of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom.

“Yes, we want the public vote,” she said. “But I don’t want a public vote to be a sweetener to a really bad deal before opening the door to a big Pandora’s box.”

Sales tax revenues traditionally used for transit could end up subsidizing toll roads, Hall said. Or tollway profits could shift to another side of town to help pay for a light-rail line.

Tuggey, who’s writing possible legislation to create the superagency, maintains voters would have to sign off on mixing different piles of money.

“This is not an end run to get toll roads,” he said.

The merger idea bubbled into the public spotlight this week after germinating a month ago in behind-the-scene talks among members of a city-county task force. The group is drawing up regional transportation goals.

Piecemeal authority of too many agencies has hobbled planning and financing the city’s roads and transit, officials argue. Also, speaking with one voice could help tap transportation funds that soon could flow more freely from Washington.

“If we’re going to be in the hunt for what we think is going to come down the line, we have to get organized sooner than later,” VIA board member Mary Briseño told the task force, which she sits on. “We don’t have time to just kick this around. We need to be bold.”

Many hoops remain — enough to foster concerns on how the agencies should be meshed.

“I want to see it in black and white before I make a decision,” VIA board and task force member Linda Chavez-Thompson said. “The devil is in the details. Where exactly does the power and authority lie?”

Other task force members say the challenges can and must be met.

“I think there’s a real good chance of it,” Terrell McCombs said of the possibility. “We need to do this if we’re going to take the next step to the future.”

Tuggey, working pro bono to craft an enabling bill, laid out key issues to work out:

•The jurisdictions to collect and allocate ATD and VIA sales tax revenues — VIA levies a half-cent — would have to remain independent unless voters later say differently.

•The ATD board — with five members appointed by the city, three by the county and two by suburban cities — might expand to give the county two more seats and the governor a pick. On the tollway panel to be phased out, the county fills four seats and the governor selects the chairman.

•The tollway agency’s agreements with the state, including a $12.4 million loan and $18.7 million left from a grant, would have to be transferred.

Bill Thornton, who chairs both the task force and the toll agency, urged officials to press on with the enormous chore.

“This isn’t baby steps, it’s huge,” he told the task force Wednesday. “Let’s aim toward getting something on paper.”